Extend life-saving Patriot Act items

The death of Osama bin Laden united our nation and provided us with some peace of mind — however, we cannot let our guard down. Our country still remains at risk of a terrorist attack. That is why the U.S. House and Senate must act quickly to extend the Roving Wiretaps and Business Records provisions in the Patriot Act, and reauthorize the Lone Wolf provision before all three expire Thursday at midnight.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I oversaw the enactment of the Patriot Act in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2005, I again spearheaded the effort to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and have been active in each extension since. 

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I can say with confidence that since the Patriot Act was enacted, these provisions have been scrutinized to the fullest extent of the law, have been the subject of many committee and subcommittee hearings, and have never been held unconstitutional. Additionally, no civil liberties have ever been violated.

These three provisions have helped keep us safe for years, stopped countless potential attacks, and played a critical role in helping ensure law enforcement officials have the tools they need to protect our country and stop terrorists before they attack.

While we’ve been fortunate in not being attacked on American soil since 2001, the terrorists have not retreated. Attacks continue throughout the world. London’s subway system was attacked. Madrid bombings brought terror to the people in Spain. And our intelligence agencies have foiled numerous plots here in America.

Terrorist threats against our nation will not expire — as a result, neither should our national security laws. Consider what these important provisions do:

Section 206 of the Patriot Act, better known as the Roving Wiretaps provision, provides for roving surveillance of targets that take measures to thwart Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance. Think about how far technology has come — we now have prepaid cell phones and Internet-based email accounts that allow terrorists better opportunities to prevent detection. Without roving wiretap authority, investigators would be forced to seek a new court order every time they wanted to change the location, phone or computer that needs to be monitored — a huge waste of time and resources. This way, if law enforcement has probable cause that their target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power, they can more quickly do their job — but, this provision does not authorize warrantless surveillance of anyone.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the Business Records provision, allows the FBI to apply to the FISA court to issue orders granting the government access to any tangible items in foreign intelligence, international terrorism and clandestine intelligence cases. The Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 significantly expanded the safeguards against potential abuse of Section 215, including additional congressional oversight, application requirements and judicial review. When last reported by the administration, this provision had been used more than 380 times to keep us safe. It’s critical to note that these orders can only be used to obtain third-party records, like a car rental receipt. 

Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 offers a definition for a so-called lone wolf agent of a foreign power, which allows a non-United States person who “engages in international terrorist activities” to be considered an agent of a foreign power under FISA, even though the specific foreign power remains unidentified.

It is especially important that Congress reauthorize the lone-wolf definition. This provision closes a gap in FISA that, if permitted to expire, could allow an individual terrorist to slip through the cracks and endanger innocent lives. When FISA was originally enacted in the 1970s, terrorists were believed to be members of an identified group. However, today, we are confronted with threats from loosely organized terrorist groups or individuals who might subscribe to a movement but do not belong to a specific terrorist group. FBI Director Mueller testified earlier this year, “the threat in this day and age increasingly is of lone wolves, persons who are radicalized domestically.” Without the lone-wolf definition, our surveillance tools will be powerless against this growing threat.

Al Qaeda and other terrorists have not backed down and we must not back down. I urge the House and Senate to promptly reauthorize these provisions, as they are critical to ensuring the safety of our nation. 

Sensenbrenner is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.